In 1992, Rage Against the Machine’s Zach De La Rocha offered a dire warning to a restless but aimless Generation X: “If we don’t take action now,” he sang, “we’ll settle for nothing later.” An anthemic rallying cry and yet, just ten years thereafter, Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard was introducing those same listeners to “the sound of settling.”
While the idea of settling carries with it some pretty unsettling connotations, its execution is proving nothing of the sort. In short, the settling down of Generation X, whose youngest members are now turning 30, may very well prove to be a pivotal baby step towards the construction of a more resilient future.
Those born in the closing years of the Baby Boom — the founding punk rock generation — may have set out to fight the power and dismantle the system but this head-butting sentiment inevitably gave way to what’s proven a far more definitive characteristic of Generation X: The desire to sidestep authority in pursuit of a more appealing alternate system of their own creation.
It was, after all, the fuel that inflated the original internet bubble. Unapologetically idealistic and hyperbolic, the rise of the dot-com era served as a sort of sneaky end-run around business as usual. If the Boomers in power didn’t get it, why waste energy fighting them when the emerging internet frontier offered you the prospect of building a whole new world from scrap. To your own specs.
Of course, it didn’t work out exactly that way. The internet panned out to be less an alternate system and more a compelling new wrinkle to the existing one. Companies still needed to make money and innovation for innovation’s sake, no matter how cool, was still folly at the end of the day.
But that’s not the end of the story. What’s important in all this is that, despite the crushing blow of unrealized (or, at least, unrealistic) internet dreams, the defining motivations of Generation X endured. Our instincts still tell us to sidestep power, to make things work on our own terms instead, and nowhere is this more evident than in the rise of localism.
Trends in governance and business over the past half century, with their ideological insistence on centralized efficiency, have reduced us to two extremes. At one end is the self-reliant individual fending for him or herself; at the other are the enormous institutions (both public and private sector) that provide our safety nets and facilitate our access to the stuff we want to buy.
That’s where the power is. Meanwhile, the formerly robust human ecosystem in between — our local and regional communities — has suffered years of malnourishment.
That makes local a pretty compelling new frontier. A new arena in which Gen Xers — now grappling with marriages and babies — can attempt to wrangle control of their own realities outside the imposing power structures held by the Baby Boomers, who always seemed more focused on advancement to greater and greater heights.
That’s what seems to be happening. A recent piece in World Magazine explores the issue, noting some key ripples cascading their way through our culture:
- The baby boom generation (people born between 1946 and 1964) pioneered divorce rates and two-career couples. Many among the [Gen X] crowd .. rebel against that.
- Many commercials seem less focused on achieving prominence in the world and more on the satisfactions of family and community. The popular Volkswagen ad premiered during the Super Bowl shows a mom giving her son a sandwich and the dad coming home from work…
- The media movement two decades ago was toward more centralization, with USA Today and networks riding high. Now the hot area of interest is localism and hyper-localism, with new journalistic websites aimed at small geographic areas popping up and national media like AOL, CNN, and MSNBC seeding neighborhood publications.
- .. Mobility declined throughout the past decade, with not even one out of 10 American households changing addresses in 2010…
Then, finally, the kicker:
- [Gen X’s] emphasis on local control of government, local production and consumption of goods, and local culture…
That’s where things get interesting as an aging Generation X, settling down and establishing roots, begins applying their existing M.O. to the community vacuum they find before them. Interesting because the building of community–and the interdependencies that make it possible–doesn’t happen at 2 a.m., sitting solo in front of a computer screen with a bag of Doritos and a super-sized Mountain Dew. It happens two people at a time as ideas are debated and alliances formed. It happens through a process of negotiation where individuals concede their need for one another and explore equitable common ground from which to interact and collectively advance.
Which is to say, it requires acknowledgement and engagement of other players, some of whom may stand in the way. And that’s exactly the opposite of how Gen X handled things their first time around.Consider the ramshackle story of Braddock, Pennsylvania. The focus of a Levi’s advertising campaign and intense media interest, it’s become a cause célèbre for those exploring progressive trends in localism and the possibilities of rebirth at the community level. But what’s more interesting, at least to me, is its role as a laboratory for these exact generational conflicts.
Sue Halpern, writing for the New York Times, dug into this nicely. John Fetterman who, at 41, is a dyed-in-the-wool, tattoo-laden Gen Xer, may be the town’s Mayor but his most notable accomplishments were achieved by — you see where I’m going with this — sidestepping the town’s existing power structure. This has brought him a lot of attention but it’s also fostered a fair amount of resentment. Enough so, finds Halpern, that his long-term effectiveness may be compromised.
Our tragic dearth of interdependencies at the local level is without dispute, and may prove to be our undoing if future circumstances conspire to reinforce just how much we really need each other. That is our context and Generation Xers, now over 30 and shy of 50, are the ones in the position to do something about it. The question, speaking as a Gen Xer myself, is are we up to it? Can we transcend a generational predisposition to bypass obstacles and instead work together (even with Baby Boomers) to re-stitch the fabric of community or will such efforts ultimately prove unsustainable — another bubble to be popped — and fall victim to the whimsy of generational trends.
It’s no small question. As Philip Bess noted recently on a listserv I subscribe to, “I’m all for it, of course. But if it only lasts for twenty years or so, it’s not going to matter all that much.”
15 responses to “Settle Down Now: Is community the new frontier for Generation X?”
I stumbled on this. Wonderful, fresh ideas regarding Gen X. Bravo!!!
The neighborhood I live in (Cleveland-Holloway in Durham, NC) is slowly filling it’s vacant/abandoned homes with Gen X’ers and the first of Gen Y’ers and we’re attracting new residents based a lot on our explicit goal of building community and working to integrate ourselves into the existing community that has been in the neighborhood for 30 or 40 years.
It has been at times a difficult process, but ultimately very rewarding. Many of us are worried about the evils of “Gentrification,” but also aware that what had existed before us (drug dealers running the neighborhood, and substandard housing) wasn’t good either. I also know that I am personally afraid our tight knit community will eventually tear at the seams as we get older like some indie movie with Mark Ruffalo. Fingers crossed this community thing works out.
Great stuff, thought provoking even. There’s a flip side to the coin of GenX rebellion against boomers, which kind of goes like this: GenXers (I’m one, born in ’72), who have spent all this time coming up with workarounds, many of whom are now settled like you say, decide to pick up and reorganize everything?
Virtual communities are around and exist largely as a function of technology and as an outlet for failings in our physical surroundings. Example: if you work with a bunch of Baby Boomers in real life that you have trouble connecting with, it’s easier for you to connect with like-minded, similar individuals online that you wouldn’t have been able to meet before the web came along.
It’s pure speculation on my part and it may be a bit outlandish, but we may be about to see something more profound: a re-definition of what it means to be part of a community.
Right or wrong it will be interesting to see how this evolves.
Pingback: re:place Magazine
Professorpinch, good thoughts. Here is Howard Blackson’s take on that:
Community is the New Technology. Cultivated by the refined technology of our personal / handheld computer devices, we now have greater access to and within our own society. This technology has given us new found access to land we already inhabit. This is seen in the rise of social networks as we are able to communicate more easily with our own places and re-connect in ways we haven’t for several generations; such as community farms and gardens, glee clubs, and civic events.
In short, we’re anti-corporate, anti-mass consumption, and anti-mass culture. I believe it. Unfortunately, we’re trapped in it more than ever before. It may take the next generations to free us all.
I am not sure I agree with the “idealistic” part. Never thought of it that way. A bigger challenge for the genration is the shear size. 80+ million boomers moving out of the workforce and 70+ million millennials moving in. Gen X may get squeezed out.
What you don’t hear much about hyper localists and urbanists is their reconciliation w/ race, class, and persistent poverty where they now live. Gen X, Gen Y, Urbanists, whatever we call them, act as if the city didn’t exist until they showed up. The reality is that many residents of urban cores have been left behind or forgotten, an afterthought for the last 30-50 years. Lets have some real talk of the dynamics that come into play when trying to build community in forgotten neighborhoods; resentment, anger, and zenophobia.
One small clarification, Dan. My use of the word “idealistic” was to characterize the dot-com boom, not Gen Xers. That is, the initial rise of internet mania carried with it a prevalent sense that the events in motion were capable of solving more problems than was actually the case (or at least not as quickly as was theorized). Thanks for the thoughts.
Slam-dunk valuable, personally and professionally. You rock and thanks!
As a gen XY (’81), I have become more and more disillusioned by the immorality and flat-out corruption in local politics. To the point that as I become more educated to the subtle tit-for-tat backroom dealings of city government in history, the more I recognize it as just as prevalent now. I am of the opinion that, until the Boomers are out of office, and their questionable practices with them; these local movements are subject to infection akin to the teaching of racism (this is how my daddy taught me…). The drive for “local”, in both economy and autonomy is admirable, but the radical attitude must be real. I think the key is in neighborhood politics, especially in Cincinnati (my hometown). Move where the attitude is a match and you will be happy; move for schools/taxes/real-estate values, and you set yourself up for failure.
@kyle, I’m an XY, ’81 like yourself, and I’ve worked in politics, and I don’t think we’ll ever get rid of backroom politics. I think the best we can do is push for more transparency in public, and pushing for community involvement in governance.
I am by no means an expert on this, but I just read Camilla Stivers book, Governance in Dark Times, and she does a great job of expressing the importance of citizen involvement in government and in communities taking responsibility to address their own problems. Perhaps this is a similar idea to Gen X looking to work around traditional power structures.
Nice article. Didn’t the baby boomers tell us and devised a plan that in order to get ahead: we need to go to college, have a decent career, have a 401 k plan, get a house, and etc.
It’s the classic, white picket fence mentality that is still in governing our society. The 2.5 children, the pressure to own a home, and keep the lifestyle to support their ( boomers) reality. Oh please. How many people in our generation can afford that? I am a free lance writer slumming it in a studio apt with my husband.
Give a dog a bone. I know many people in our generation that are living with their parents in boomer central. At one time, Allen Ginsberg and the Beatnik pact were able to slum it as an artist. Now, I need a second job to support my writing, let alone my basic needs. Can I get a witness?-We need a change.
@Bill Smil, I was the second person to comment on this post, and as an urbanist living the racial and historical complexity of this issue was the first thing I commented on. I don’t know that it gets covered in the papers much, but I think the majority of people moving to neglected neighborhoods are acutely aware of their histories.
These issues have been at the forefront of our conversations between new and old neighbors, and there are no easy answers. The most important thing, I think, is to build relationships (through community) with the people who have lived there for 30 years. When we have neighborhood meetings, we don’t have a neighborhood board or president, we have facilitators that ask questions. And we try to go door to door and flyer before each meeting because we know a significant percentage of people don’t have email or don’t want to be on the neighborhood list serve. We haven’t had any real issues of anger or resentment in our neighborhood, and I think the point where the old residents decided the new residents were ok, was when we hosted a big neighborhood block party complete with food and multiple kegs.
From the beginning of our nation’s history we have been severely segregated and the suburbanization of the Post War era only made things worse. I think integrating communities for the first time, and building strong, vibrant, diverse communities is the only answer. And gentrifying spaces so they become all white or all black or all latino, etc. isn’t the answer either.
I’d love to hear your thoughts or experiences about how new neighbors can integrate better into old neighborhoods.
Pingback: Is community the new frontier for Generation X? • Jennifer Chronicles